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Online Learning Costs More . . . or Does it?

By Carol A. Twigg, executive director, Center for Academic Transformation

At every higher education gathering I’ve been to in the past few months, someone stands up and states with great authority, "Even though they think that distance education (or online learning) can save money, we all know that it can’t. In fact, it may even cost more than traditional classroom instruction."

The they in question usually refers to administrators (if the speaker is a faculty member) or to legislators or other external policy makers (if the speaker is an administrator). When this statement emanates from relatively novice distance educators—those who are in the throes of the developmental stages of their first online offering or who argue from an N of 1—we can chalk it up to inexperience. Any first-time teaching experience is bound to take more time than one that has been repeated and refined over time. But when experienced distance educators who have been in the game for a long time are vehement that online education may be more costly, we need to examine this idea seriously.

What lies behind the notion that online education is more expensive than traditional methods? The primary reason is the amount of time that faculty spend developing and delivering online courses, which, in most folks’ experience, is in excess of what they spend developing and delivering classroom-based courses.

The commonly held belief that student enrollment in online courses must be limited in order for the experience to be effective is a consequence of the labor-intensive pedagogies employed in most of today’s online courses. Student/faculty ratios of 12, 15, 20 or 25 to 1 are cited as the norm—and even those relatively low ratios are frequently accompanied by persistent complaints from faculty about increased workload.

Of course, many well-established distance learning institutions like the British Open University, SUNY Empire State College and the University of Phoenix control their costs despite low student/faculty ratios by following a different production paradigm. Courses are designed, developed and packaged by highly skilled academic teams. Students taking the courses are then "tutored" by adjuncts, who are less costly to employ than full-time faculty, in a variety of institutional configurations.

Herein lies the clue to the cost conundrum of online learning. What these nontraditional institutions have done is to reconceptualize the way in which online courses are developed and delivered. They have recognized that the more one replicates the traditional campus model, the more one’s operating costs will resemble or exceed traditional campus costs, especially if one relies on the same student/faculty "contact" as traditional models. Yet the tutoring model is only one of many techniques that can be employed.

Other online models seek to create a structure that avoids funneling all communication through the instructor. Because the Internet permits active participation by all students in every discussion, many faculty who become involved in online education feel obliged to respond to dozens of student postings each day. Alternate models are emerging that focus on student-to-student communication and do not obligate the instructor to respond to every individual contribution. Using learning teams as a primary part of the learning process, for example, is one way to engage students with one another. In this model, the instructor comments on or evaluates the results of the process, making needed adjustments as it goes along. Well-designed learning experiences that provide learners with links to external resources, whether net-based or not, also move the focus of course activity from relying on the instructor as the sole source of knowledge.

The use of computer-based assessment techniques can be part of the solution to the problem of teaching greater numbers of students online while, at the same time, improving the quality of their learning experiences. Students cannot know, without being told, what instructors believe to be the core facts and ideas needed to pass a course. Assessment instruments make those expectations explicit and allow students to assess their progress against them. Low stakes quizzes and other computer-based exercises can provide feedback to students on their progress, identifying students who are at risk at an early stage, while preparing them for formal examinations at the end of the term. The inclusion of computer-based quizzing capabilities in commercial course management systems as well as the emergence of special purpose software such as Mallard (developed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) alleviates much of the labor-intensive process of grading student assignments.

Another approach to designing more cost-effective online courses takes advantage of existing instructional software—whether commercially- produced or university-created—to eliminate much of the time faculty spend in developing and presenting content. Software that has been vetted through a collaborative process will almost inevitably be of higher quality than any single instructor can produce. Such software actively engages students in the learning process without constant demands on the instructor. Faculty can be more judicious about how they spend their time, intervening when students have questions or problems requiring more personalized attention. The use of frequently-asked questions (FAQs) is a less sophisticated yet similar technique used by experienced faculty to respond to routine or repetitive student questions, thus enabling them to manage their time more effectively.

As we grow more experienced with online learning, we will discover still more ways to improve the experience for both students and faculty. By moving away from what Bill Massy has called the handicraft approach to teaching and taking advantage of the exciting capabilities of information technology, we can create new learning paradigms that are both effective and affordable for all of our students.

Reprinted from The Learning MarketSpace, December 1, 1999. Written monthly by Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg, The Learning MarketSpace provides leading-edge assessment of, and future-oriented thinking about, issues and developments concerning the nexus of higher education and information technology. More information.

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